Anxiety, lost moments mount for families of troops in Iraq

FOUNTAIN, Colo. - These days, Army Sgt. Robert Lynn O'Neil's pride and joy, a dark-red truck with monster tires, sits untouched in front of his family's house.

It's parked against traffic and at an awkward angle, as if its owner had been in a great hurry to get home.

To the deployed soldier's wife and three children, the Dodge Ram pickup is a reminder of happier times, when Dad was around to load it up for fried chicken picnics in the rugged countryside and to provoke wrestling matches with the kids around the house.

"When he's not around, we don't feel like doing much," said Chris, 20, the couple's oldest child.

O'Neil, who serves in the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, and tens of thousands of other U.S. soldiers departed in the spring for the war in Iraq. The separation has been hard on the families, who count their losses in the number of events they haven't been able to share - a baby's birth, a daughter's graduation, a wedding anniversary - and the interruption of the day-to-day business of being a family.

On top of those missed moments, the families of the 3rd Cavalry have more grave concerns. The 5,200-troop combat unit based at Fort Carson has lost a dozen soldiers in Iraq, many of them in ambushes in the dangerous "Sunni Triangle," west of Baghdad.

"For our family members, it's not in the back of their mind. It's in the front of their mind every day," said Lt. Col. Tom Budzyna, an Army spokesman at Fort Carson.

As of yesterday, 268 U.S. soldiers had been killed in Iraq, 130 of them on or after President Bush declared an end to major combat May 1, according to the military.

Lori O'Neil, Robert's wife, turns stonily silent when asked whether her husband has been involved in any close calls.

"I praise the Lord," she says simply. "It was only [God] that could have protected him."

Splintered families have had a particularly tough time dealing with separation because the government did not say at first how long the troops would remain overseas. The commander of U.S. forces said last week that all troops in Iraq should expect at least yearlong deployments.

Military personnel initially had been told to expect deployments from six months to a year, and many families had hoped for a swift homecoming. After the president's announcement in May, some believed that the hardest work was over and that the soldiers would soon return.

The families of the 3rd Cavalry went through another emotional upheaval a few weeks ago, when Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, a Colorado Republican, mistakenly announced that the regiment would return in October. The error, which arose from a misunderstanding, was corrected the same day, Army officials said.

The unit will probably come home in the spring after serving out its year, officials said.

The incorrect report also spread to families of the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, another large unit from Fort Carson. Kristin Olexio, 36, wife of a major in the team's 4th Engineer Battalion, said she doesn't cry about much. But after having her emotions tugged in opposite directions by the senator's announcement and subsequent retraction, "I literally cried all night."

Olexio said she knew she might be separated from her husband for as long as 12 months, but it didn't sink in: "I did not prepare myself for the year. I didn't want to believe it. I couldn't think that far out."

Yellow ribbons

The O'Neils weren't as upset by the false report. They said they have learned to rely on updates from the Army and Robert, 41, rather than speedier, less reliable sources of information.

Outside their modest wood-and-brick house near the heart of this town of 18,000 residents, yellow ribbons are tied around tree trunks and on the front yard's metal fence. A large American flag is displayed to the left of the front door, hung there by Jackie, the couple's 18-year-old daughter, on the night her father was deployed.

On a hot, dry August evening, Lori O'Neil sits with her children in a living room cooled by a humming window air conditioner. A couple of well-worn Bibles rest on a coffee table cluttered with papers and objects that include a white stuffed bear dressed as Uncle Sam.

Jackie, reclining on a brown flower-pattern couch with her bare feet propped up on her mother's lap, talks about missing her dad's goofy ways and about his absence from her high school graduation. Chris says he misses the hours his dad used to spend helping him tinker with his silver Pontiac Firebird.

Stephanie, 17, says she misses the feeling of absolute security. A couple of months ago, when she was being pestered by someone the family described as an "almost-stalker," Stephanie would have felt better with her father around: "My dad's protective of his girls. That's what I love about my dad."

Lori didn't tell her husband about the incident until it was over, after police told the man not to call or visit the house again. "He would have been frantic not to know the whole situation," she says.

The longtime Army wife tries to shield her husband from problems at home and to keep his spirits up. She doesn't complain about his absence or about having to shoulder so many responsibilities.

When he phones, which is once every couple of weeks, she fills him in on what's going on at home. "I encourage him and tell him how much he's loved and missed," Lori says.

Robert plays the same game, Lori suspects. She knows that he has lost 20 pounds from his 5-foot-11-inch, 225-pound frame and that he's suffering from the heat and the insect bites. But she senses that he's keeping the worst of what he has seen and experienced from her.

The couple married young, when he was 20 and she was 16. The first time Lori met Robert, at an evening church function in Mesa, Ariz., she couldn't see him clearly because it was dark.

"I couldn't even see his face. But when he spoke to me, my spirit leaped," she said. They were married a year later.

A month after the wedding, he joined the Army.

Looking ahead

Robert plans to retire from the service after he returns from the war, Lori says. She doesn't begrudge the time he has given to his country, but she looks forward to finally having him to herself. "I've been a military wife almost all my life," she says.

The children defer to the strong bond between their parents. They appear to draw comfort from it. When there's a call from Robert, they hand the phone over to Lori. "We get to talk to him every now and then, but we know when he's calling here, it's for Mom," Chris says.

Lori's eyes light up with pride when she talks about the kind of man her husband is. "I think he's got a lot of integrity," she says. But she adds modestly, "He's not perfect."

The O'Neils don't have much planned for when the sergeant returns other than to give him some "down time." But they know that one of the first things he'll want to do is pack up the family in the truck and set out for some roads that are unpaved and hard to navigate. Then things will be as they should.

"When everybody's here, we're a working whole again," Chris says.